Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in older adults. It is also one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States. It is estimated that more than five million adults are suffering from the disease. Late-onset Alzheimer’s disease is most common and occurs in adults older than 60. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease occurs in adults younger than age 60 and is less common, but tends to be more aggressive and progress more quickly.
Although Alzheimer’s disease affects mostly older adults, it should be understood that developing Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging. Education is important to understanding the symptoms and how the disease differs from mild cognitive impairment, the stage between normal forgetfulness due to aging and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have made strides in understanding how the brain functions, but little is known about how Alzheimer’s disease develops and progresses. Research is under way around the world to find effective ways to treat, cure, and ultimately prevent the development of the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease affects the parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language. As the disease progresses, it can greatly impact a person’s ability to care for themselves and carry out daily activities. It is still unclear what causes the disease to develop. The greatest risk factor is age because the number of people with the disease doubles every five years after age 65. Other risk factors include family history and genetics. Scientists are spending more time studying how education, diet, and the environment contribute to the development of the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease can be difficult to diagnosis. The only way to obtain a definitive diagnosis is through the examination of brain tissue which cannot be done until after death. Alzheimer’s disease is caused by abnormal deposits of proteins that form plaques and tangles throughout the brain. As the plaques and tangles form, neurons are unable to function efficiently and they lose the ability to communicate with other neurons, and will eventually die. As the damage spreads, it reaches the hippocampus, the region of the brain that is essential for forming memories, thus the reason why memory problems are one of the first warning signs of the development of the disease.
For me, the world of Alzheimer’s disease is all too real. A couple of years ago, my grandmother was diagnosed with the disease. But before she was diagnosed, much of my family suspected that she had it based on her actions and because several of her older sisters had Alzheimer’s disease. It has been difficult to see how the disease has affected her. The disease has affected her short-term memory and her personality. The ever-patient woman that I remember growing up is now easily frustrated and is often over whelmed by large tasks or variances to her normal routine. She is at a stage that she knows that something has changed but she doesn’t completely understand. It is difficult for her to understand because physically she feels strong, but her mind is failing her. As we were saying our goodbyes after one of our last visits, she said one of the hardest things I ever had to hear her say, “I’m sorry for the way I am.”
There is still much to learn about what causes Alzheimer’s disease and how it progresses. Research is ongoing to find was to prevent, treat, and cure the disease. You can do your part to support care and research by participating in a Walk to End Alzheimer’s event in your area.